The local author William Kennedy famously chronicled the state capital with his cycle of Albany novels, including Legs and Ironweed, which summoned not only the politics and grime of the city, but also its ghosts. Kennedy's depiction was of a city that has long been a little raw and rough around the edges -- a reality Albany struggles to escape. Recent political infighting in the State Senate hasn't helped the city's reputation.

The capital of New York State, Albany is a manageable, medium-size city dominated by government and banking -- and a firm wish for greater respect. Locals are proud of their city's great history in the Upper Hudson Valley, its culture, and continued efforts at urban renewal, but the city has had a somewhat difficult time convincing many from around the state of its charms. Beyond school groups on civics-class field trips, Albany attracts many more visitors for government and business trips than for leisure travel. The latter, though, are likely to find a fascinating dose of history, a full roster of summer festivals, user-friendly public spaces, and a few surprises that may just win the city some newfound respect.

Two monumental building projects have distinguished the city's physical evolution. The New York State Capitol, a stunning pile of native stone, took more than 30 years and the efforts of five architects to build, finally exhausting the patience of the governor, Theodore Roosevelt, in 1899. In the 1970s another governor, Nelson Rockefeller, left his imprint on the capital by building the dramatic Empire State Plaza and remaking downtown as one of the most starkly modern government headquarters this side of Brasilia. Rockefeller's ambition was to make Albany the country's most beautiful capital city; whether that was accomplished or not is a matter of debate, but the modern-art collection he amassed in the name of the capital is the largest publicly owned and displayed in the country.